They’re most often heard before they’re seen: hundreds if not thousands of goats chomping away on an East Bay hillside, snapping through twigs and dry grass while letting out the occasional bleat.
Besides being a favorite sight to hikers, the various goat herds that trim the hills of the East Bay are a natural and efficient way to clear underbrush and other highly flammable materials that can help quickly spread a wildfire. Grass and underbrush can also give flames fuel to grow higher and ignite tree branches and leaves.
To cut down those risks, the city of Oakland and East Bay Regional Park District fire departments hire these herds of goats to eat away, particularly in those areas where residential neighborhoods and wildland meet.
The East Bay Regional Parks have been using cattle, sheep, and goats to help maintain vegetation for more than 50 years. The prime goat-trimming season runs from March to August.
So far this season, goats have cleared more than 800 acres in Oakland parks alone.
The largest project involved a herd of 2,000 goats that spent June and most of July clearing in excess of 230 acres in Knowland Park around the Oakland Zoo, from Interstate 580 up to Skyline Boulevard.
But other assignments can be much smaller, such as the few hundred goats that are scheduled to graze less than an acre of Beaconsfield Canyon over two days next month. Most recently, a herd of goats was clearing a section of Joaquin Miller Park, on steep terrain near the Castle Park trailhead.
All of those areas have one thing in common: they’re steep and wooded, making it hard for two-legged firefighters to traverse and clear. That’s why goat herds, nimble and hungry, are brought in to do the heavy eating.
“A lot of the areas the goats work in are heavily wooded and narrow,” said Terri Oyarzùn, owner of Goats R Us out of Orinda. “They are ideal at doing the job humans can’t do.”
Oyarzùn’s husband, Egon, worked with goats in his native Chile, and the two started raising their own herd beginning in 1995. They began with 54 heads clearing their neighbors’ yards of brush and poison oak.
Now, they and other goat ranchers are contracted to clear hundreds of acres in the East Bay Regional Park system from Miller Knox Park in Richmond to Joaquin Miller in Oakland.
The Goats R Us herd has grown to about 10,000 heads, each goat with an identification tag affixed to their ear.
Oyarzùn said not all of the goats have names. “They generally get named when they have a personality that has them stick out of the crowd,” she said.
Their goats are a special crossover breed of Angora and Spanish goats, which help them tolerate the warm balmy days up on the ridgeline and colder, fog-covered nights.
Oyarzùn said it takes about 350 goats to clear about an acre a day, which also depends on how old the goats are, what exactly they’re eating, the climate, and more.
The goats are tended by herders typically from Peru or Mexico, who come to the Bay Area for up to three-year stints. They’re aided by border collies that Goats R Us raise and train themselves. The goats are penned with flexible electric fences powered by car batteries and stay in an area until it’s cleared, before moving elsewhere.
A Goats R Us herd was featured in a viral video in 2015 as they descended down from one grazing area to the next near the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which hires the goats and crew annually.
The Goats R Us herds are scheduled to finish clearing sections of Wildcat Canyon Regional Park in Richmond next month. Other herds are scheduled to clear Beaconsfield Canyon and Shepherd Canyon parks, both in Oakland, also by the end of August.
While it may be tempting to offer the goats a little something extra to snack on, Oyarzùn asks that people don’t feed them, as what’s being offered may be toxic to the horned lawnmowers.
“We want people to enjoy them, but it’s best to enjoy them with their eyes,” she said.
The goats have a four-chambered stomach and once each fills up they’ll lay down to give themselves time to process their meals. And since they typically start eating around the same time, they often will take their breaks together.
“It’s hard to eat all day,” Oyarzùn said. “It’s tiring.”
Those pauses, Oyarzùn said, are the herds’ “union breaks,” although the goats don’t qualify for vacation days and other employee benefits.
While snacking and napping on a Northern California hillside would feel like a vacation or retirement plan for many, older goats often have a hard time getting in and out of the trucks that take them to new places to graze.
“A 10-year-old goat is pretty old to do this blue-collar work,” Oyarzùn said. “When they work for us, they have a retirement.”
That retirement includes staying closer to home on the ranch, although sometimes they’ll leave to visit local schools or senior centers. The Oyarzùn’s first goat, Cookie, lived to be 17 years old.
But spending so much time in fire-prone territory does come with its own risks.
“We’ve been caught in fires in the Oakland Hills,” Oyarzùn said. “That was scary.”
That includes when a 20-acre fire that started on Grizzly Peak in August 2017 put the goats, their dog, and herders in potential jeopardy. No one was hurt, but the incident exposed both the risk and benefit of having goats clear the hills.
Still, Oyarzùn said there’s never a time when the goats, dogs, and herders aren’t up for the task of making the Oakland Hills a safer place to be.
“We would never say it’s too dry,” Oyarzùn said. “We would just need to get it done faster.”